How in the world is it hockey season already?
Wait, I don’t care. Because the return of hockey means the end of baseball, no more summer temperatures and a new era of Phoenix Coyotes hockey.
In case you missed it during the offseason (read: you live under a rock), the Coyotes sale was finally completed over the summer. For the first time since 2009, the team looks to have a guaranteed future in the Valley and ownership that cares about the product it is putting out, both on and off the ice.
Of course, the offseason also brought changes to the desert. The Coyotes made a big signing in center Mike Ribeiro but lost center Boyd Gordon. The move meant the Coyotes lost a touch of defensive grit but added offensive prowess.
The team will also head into the season with forward Lucas Lessio having won a roster spot after a battle with exciting prospect Max Domi, an overpopulation of defensemen on one-way deals and Rostislav Klesla on injured reserve.
Here are some things to watch for — along with my predictions — for the Coyotes’ 2013-2014 season.
Player to watch: Mike Ribeiro
The newest Coyote is the man to watch this year for the team. Having already played — and flourished — under a Dave Tippett team in Dallas, Ribeiro comes with high expectations. He posted 49 total points last year with the Washington Capitals and finished a minus-4 on the season. He’s expected to lead the top line with captain Shane Doan and Mikkel Boedker, a line that needs to become a scoring force this season. Ribeiro will also be expected to improve the dismal power play. Basically, if Ribeiro has a good year (which I expect), the Coyotes’ offense should see an uptick in production.
Top trade bait: Young defensemen
For once, Keith Yandle has fallen out of this spot. The Coyotes will have nine defensemen on their roster on opening night and all have one-way deals, meaning they have to clear waivers before being sent down to the AHL. In a league where defensive prospects are always desired, I would expect at least one to be claimed on the wire should the club make a move. Depending on how Chris Brown and Lessio fit into the side, the team still has a need for a top-six left wing. Given the abundance of defensive talent on the team’s roster, I could see a trade happening should the second line of Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal and an unknown winger fail to produce.
Scoring leader: Mike Ribeiro
It shouldn’t come as a shock when Ribeiro leads the Coyotes in points at the end of the season. As I mentioned earlier, he’s going to see a lot of ice time and comes with high expectations. Playing on a line with Doan (always good for at least 20 goals) and Boedker (if he finds a scoring touch, he’s lethal) and seeing time on the power play will only cause Ribiero’s point total to creep higher every game. If Ribeiro stays healthy, he could top Ray Whitney’s 77-point season that saw the ‘Yotes go all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
Storyline to follow: The battle at left wing
As I already mentioned, the Coyotes still have a need for a top-six winger. While the addition of Lessio and Brown would likely see Lauri Korpikoski askedto skate with Vrbata and Hanzal, I’m not 100 percent sure he’s ready for the call. Head coach Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney — along with the fans — will be keeping a close eye on this slot all season. The team never replaced Whitney and the lack of a skilled passer was evident last season. While Ribeiro will help on the power play, both Hanzal and Vrbata have shown they need a quarterback on the line to get the most out of them. If no current Coyote is working out, I would expect Maloney to start working the phones.
Best nickname: Das Hammer
I’m so incredibly pleased that Rob Klinkhammer remained with the Coyotes. After posting 11 points in 22 games last year, Klink was given a two-year deal with the Coyotes. He’s a fun player to watch with a lot of upside and speed. He can fill in all over the ice. Plus, yelling “DAS HAMMER” after a goal is always a good time.
Bold prediction: OEL involved in Norris talk
Every Coyotes fans know how skilled of a defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson is. He regularly tallies more than 20 points per season and is getting tougher and stronger every day. Since debuting for Phoenix in 2010, OEL has massively improved. His vision and patience on the ice are palpable. He is an impact player who is slowly being recognized as the all-star he is on a national level. Given his efforts in the preseason, I think he’ll be involved in the Norris Trophy talk towards the end of the season. I don’t think he’ll win it, but he’ll be among the top five defenders.
Season outcome: Playoffs
It’s going to be a push given the new divisions, but I see the Coyotes sneaking into the playoffs this year. I say “sneaking” because I’m not totally convinced the lack of a true top-six winger can be overcome, which may drop the team’s scoring ability. However, given a strong defense, Tippett’s system and the constant underdog approach, I think the Coyotes manage a playoff appearance, most likely in the third Pacific Division spot behind the Kings and Canucks.
I can’t wait to get this season going. I’ll see you at Jobing.com Arena Thursday.